Gifts of the Spirit: Introduction

The New Testament provides various lists of gifts and roles in the church. The shortest, if you can call it a list, is Peter’s twofold classification, “the gift of speaking” and “the gift of helping” (1 Pet 4:10–11). Various Pauline lists specify more gifts, but each of them falls fairly neatly into one of Peter’s two classes (Eph 4:11; Rom 12:6–8; 1 Cor 12:8–10, 28). Peter also provides a twofold regulative principle that does a fair job of summarizing Paul’s more detailed regulations:

Do you have the gift of speaking? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you. Do you have the gift of helping others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies. Then everything you do will bring glory to God through Jesus Christ. All glory and power to him forever and ever! Amen. (1 Pet 4:11)

That sounds much like Paul’s directions to exercise your gift “with as much faith as God has given you” (Rom 12:6).

This blog answers three key questions about the gifts of the Spirit:

  • Paul call them gifts of the Spirit and describes them as gifts that the Spirit distributes as he wills.
  • Elsewhere in the New Testament, we reading of the Son ascending on high and giviing these gifts.
  • That in turn is a quotation of an Old Testament description of Yahweh ascending on high and receiving gifts.

How the Gifts Work (1 Cor 12:1–7, 12–13)

Before we list and unpack how each individual gift operates, we should pay some attention to the effect that any truly spiritual gift will have when it operates as God intended it to. Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12–14 describes the gifts as the Spirit-endowed activities of a transformed people serving God and edifying each other; and Ephesians 4 describes the gifts as the offices that God has granted the church so the entire body will mature into the image of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 12 speaks of the Spirit accomplishing three things through the divine distribution of gifts:

  1. Proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord (1 Cor 12:1–3)
  2. Producing the common good in a congregation (1 Cor 12:4–7)
  3. Maintaining unity with a healthy diversity in a congregation that is made of of many members (1 Cor 12:12–13).

Proclaiming, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:1–3)

Now, dear brothers and sisters, regarding your question about the special abilities the Spirit gives us. I don’t want you to misunderstand this. You know that when you were still pagans, you were led astray and swept along in worshiping speechless idols. So I want you to know that no one speaking by the Spirit of God will curse Jesus, and no one can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor 12:1–3).

Denial: “Anathema Jesus”

Paul insisted, even if it were an ecstatic shout from a so-called charismatic, the call “Anathema Jesus” (1 Cor 12:3) could never be from God. Twenty-first century Christians might wonder why Paul needed to give this warning to anyone claiming to be a Christian, but any one of three factors could have led participants in the early Christian community to curse Jesus.

  1. Jewish anti-evangelists like Saul pressured Jewish Christians to curse Jesus Christ (Acts 26:11, cf. Matt 10:17; Acts 9:1; 22:5, 19). It’s even possible that Paul may be remembering with shame a time when that blasphemy would have been on his own lips as he forced it on the churches he persecuted.
  2. Imperial powers menaced Christians with demands that they curse Jesus Christ rather than acknowledge anyone other than their Roman rulers as “Lord” and master.1E.g., Pliny the Younger (ad 62?–113?) was the Roman governor of Bithynia. In AD 106, he reported to emperor Trajan that he tried to force Christians to “curse Christ,” but admitted, “a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do so.”
  3. The Law pronounced anyone hung on a tree to be accursed, and that had happened to Jesus (Gal 3:13, quoting Deut 21:23). Some early Christians may have failed to understand that the one who “took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing” (Gal 3:13) was not himself accursed.

Confession: “Jesus is Lord”

On the other hand, every loyal confession of Jesus as Lord is from the Spirit. Just as the Spirit confesses that God is “Abba Father” (Gal 4:6), the Spirit confesses that Jesus is the Lord. Of course, this verbal confession must genuinely signal a cry for salvation (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:14–40) and acknowledge submission to the title’s authority. Jesus must really be Lord, or your use of the title only testifies against you.

Jesus complained, “Why do you keep calling me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). And he warned, “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter” (Matt 7:21). In other words, even while a liturgical tongue chants, “Jesus is Lord,” disobedience can mumble, “… but not mine!”

But Paul identifies all genuine disciples as spiritual because they confess Jesus’s lordship, which shows that the Holy Spirit possesses that confessor.2A Eriksson, Traditions as Rhetorical Proof: Pauline Argumentation in 1 Corinthians, ConBT (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1998), 217.

Working for the Common Good (2 Cor 12:4–7)

The Holy Spirit interlaces all of the church’s human individuality and frailty with divine unity and power.

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts (χάρισμα), but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service (διακονία), but we serve the same Lord. God works (ἐνέργημα) in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. (1 Cor 12:4–7)

So on both the human and divine sides, the Holy Spirit’s work reflects unity. Any genuine exercise of the gifts of the Spirit reflects inner-Trinitarian unity as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work among us: There are varieties of gifts by the same Spirit, varieties of service by the same Lord, and varieties of activities by the same God.” And on the human side, authentic exercise of spiritual gifts will promote church unity, effecting actions for the common good.

In general, one’s spiritual gifts determine one’s function; indeed, it’s not so much a matter of having a gift, as being a gift.3Jean Jacques Suurmond, “A Fresh Look at Spirit-Baptism and the Charisms,” Expository Times 109.4 (January 1998): 103–06. But such matters as holiness, spiritual maturity, and good order also play a critical role in determining who actually does what in a church. For example, one might have the administrative skills of a Fortune 500 CEO’s executive assistant but have an unloving spirit and therefore be disqualified for church leadership. One might have a knack for helping others but not rule one’s own home well and therefore be disqualified from serving as an elder or deacon (1 Tim 3:4, 12; Titus 1:5–9). One might even have administrative, prophetic, and teaching gifts but have fallen into immorality and thus be disqualified from being a pastor (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:5–9).

And God is sovereign in his distribution of the gifts. When Paul notes that “a spiritual gift is given to each of us” (1 Cor 12:7), he implies distribution as the Spirit wills (1 Cor 12:11). That not only means that some people have certain gifts; it also means many others do not have certain gifts. Even with regard to general characteristics and functions of Christians, the Spirit provides some a special gift, and leaves others to function in a less-gifted manner in that area.

By definition, all believers have faith, but the Spirit gives some a special gift of faith; all disciples should share the good news, but God calls some in particular to be evangelists; all Christians should be merciful, but Christ gives some a special gift of mercy. Referring to uniquely apostolic work, Paul spoke of God, “who worked through Peter as the apostle to the Jews” and through himself as “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Gal 2:8). But Paul could also refer to God’s work through the general believer: “God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases hi” (Phil 2:13). Whether apostle, pastor, or laymen, we can all work out our calling in ways that manifest the Holy Spirit.

Paul insisted that immature individualism must yield to corporate maturity, to the one mature man in Christ. So the loving and edifying work that Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians 12–14 aims to build up the body of Christ not the charismatic; likewise, Ephesians 4 emphasizes the growth of the whole body, not the perfectionism of individual saints pressing on to a “higher life.”

Producing Unity in Diversity (1 Cor 12:12–13)

Body Metaphor

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. (1 Cor 12:12–13)

Christ makes the whole body fit together perfectly. The body is a favorite Pauline analogy for the church. It speaks of diverse manifestations, unified purpose, and interdependence under the overall authority of Jesus Christ. Paul taught the basic analogy: “We are members of his body” (Eph 5:30) and are made “complete through … union with Christ, who is the head” (Col 2:10). Sometimes he expanded on the analogy. For example he told the Roman congregation, “Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other” (Rom 12:4–5). Likewise, he told the Ephesians, “He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love” (Eph 4:16). This is the idea behind Paul’s regulation of the gifts (1 Cor 14).

Source of the Unity

The source of that unity is the work of the Holy Spirit, who effects regeneration and reconciliation.


“In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:13). This baptism gives us new life, so “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). In other words, we are one body because we share the life of Christ. We “have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come” (Heb 6:5), we “were all made to drink of the one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).


We are also one body because the Holy Spirit breaks down real and perceived barriers, working by diverse gifts and through many members to produce and sustain the common good. Ultimately, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, black nor white, male nor female, slave nor free; rather, Christ is all and is in all (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). He reconciled us all into one body by the work of the cross (Eph 2:16).

Five Gift Lists in the New Testament

The New Testament provides five lists of spiritual gifts, one twofold classification scheme by Peter (1 Pet 4:11) and four listings by Paul (Rom 12:6–8; 1 Cor 12:8–10, 28; Eph 4:11). None of the lists entirely parallels any other, though considerable overlap shows up. The following table arranges the lists, numbering each unique gift, classifying them according to Peter’s twofold heading, and paralleling identical or closely related gifts. Although individual gifts can overlap categories, the following classification provides a helpful way of organizing the discussion of the gifts.


1 Pet 4:11

Eph 4:11

Rom 12:6–8

1 Cor 12:8–10

1 Cor 12:28

Whoever speaks























Word of wisdom





Word of knowledge





Distinguishing between spirits










Interpretation of tongues



1 Pet 4:11


Rom 12:6–8

1 Cor 12:8–10

1 Cor 12:28

Whoever serves








































Although I numbered them as distinct gifts, I have listed the similar gifts of helps and serving on the same line in the table, and the same with administration and leadership. I also contemplated listing mercy and contributing on the same line, since the Greek word for mercy frequently has to do with alms giving, but I decided against it, because the gift of mercy has wider impact than just providing financial relief.

In the Ephesians list, the gifts are the persons themselves: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. This probably denotes what we would today consider “offices.” Most of the other lists focus more on function than office, on the nature of the ministry rather than the identity of the person.

Prophet/prophecy is the only gift that Paul includes in all four of his lists, and he includes Pastor-teacher or teacher in all but one (1 Cor 12:8–10). Otherwise some of the gifts show up in two of his lists, or even only once. It’s also interesting to note the key Old Testament office that are not in the gift lists, namely, priest and king. The general office of believers partake of this role (1 Pet 2:5f., 9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6, see Exod 19:6), the lists provide no specific gifting or office for either priest or king.


Think of what a wonder any congregation would be if it found itself self-consciously receiving and exercising all twenty gifts of the Spirit that we find in the New Testament. Think of the results: spiritual nurture in a unified fellowship of saints, self-confidence in the faith, power in witness, and focus in discipleship. Why it would be nothing less than a manifestation of the heavenly community on earth.


Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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